The Guildhall, Lavenham

Alec Betterton explains how a timber-framed hall opens a window onto the piety and economics of a Suffolk market town in the 1520s.

Lavenham in Suffolk is much visited and celebrated as one of the most picturesque villages in the country. Historically it was a busy, thriving and for many years a prosperous medieval and Tudor town. From 1257 until the late eighteenth century it boasted a thriving market and fair and for much of its life was an industrial centre, first of medieval and Tudor woollen cloth manufacture and by the nineteenth century of replacement, weaving-based industries housed in factories. Its famed and magnificent church and its wealth of ancient, high-grade timber- framed buildings reflect the high point of the town's prosperity during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII.

The Muster Roll of 1522 and the returns to the great Lay Subsidy of 1524 offer detailed insight into the wealth and occupations of Lavenham's Tudor citizens. In his Local History in England (1972), the late Professor W.G. Hoskins constructed a table ranking provincial towns according to their total contributions to the Subsidy. This revealed that Lavenham in the 1520s, when the Guildhall was built, ranked fourteenth richest in the land.

The phenomenal survival of. so many fine examples of expensive timber framing is ironically due largely to the slow decline of prosperity throughout the years of great rebuilding seen in other towns. Rich enough to build lavishly and enduringly in the good times, Lavenham could not afford any wholesale fashionable rebuilding in its decline. A few Georgian facades may be seen to hide older timber frames but almost the only architectural intrusions into the Tudor scene are the small factories and terraces of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century houses which were erected (and often dated) by the manufacturers of woven horsehair material. This industry enjoyed a short-lived but significant flourish, exploiting the reserves of labour and traditional weaving expertise then abundantly available among men, women and children.

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